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Rabbi Sara Metz eager to engage as new Anshei Israel leader

Rabbi Sara Metz

Rabbi Sara Metz will be only the fourth rabbi to lead Congregation Anshei Israel in its 90-year history when she takes up the reins July 1.

“That’s so very exciting,” she says, acknowledging it is also challenging. “The community, and rightfully so, holds Rabbi Eisen in such high esteem. I have spoken with him a few times and in my short interactions I can very clearly see how kind, understanding, and wise a rabbi he is. Those are very big shoes to fill, and what I like to say is that I could never fill his shoes but I can fill my own pretty well.”

Metz also will be Anshei Israel’s first woman rabbi, but she sees that as less of a challenge. “There are many wonderful pieces of my experiences so far with the Anshei Israel community, and gender really hasn’t been mentioned. It’s not [been] a part of things and that was very refreshing,” she says.

“It is exciting to know that there is a group of young kids who may ask their parents, ‘Can a rabbi be a man?’” she adds.

Metz’s warmth coupled with her previous experience as an assistant rabbi in California and senior rabbi in New Jersey made her stand out among a slew of candidates, says Stephanie Roberts, Anshei Israel’s immediate past president and co-chair of the strategic direction and rabbinic transition task force with Phil Pepper. “Every time we interacted with her we wanted to hear more.”

Metz “has a very engaging personality,” says Dan Jurkowitz, president of the Anshei Israel board. He also was impressed with her depth of Judaic knowledge and her energy. The task force spent almost a year on the search process, he notes, which started with a survey of the entire congregation to see what people wanted in a rabbi. The task force interviewed many candidates, but only Metz and one other rabbi were invited to Tucson for a trial run.

Metz came to Anshei Israel to lead a Shabbat weekend in early March, which turned out to be the last Shabbat the congregation met in person before the coronavirus pandemic forced synagogues to close their doors and move services online.

“She came during a very difficult time,” says Nichole Chorny, Anshei Israel’s cantorial soloist. ”People were starting to not shake hands and be wary of being near each other, and it was a very awkward time to come. But she made everyone feel comfortable, even at a time of discomfort. She really led the congregation through that weekend with poise and calm and confidence.”

Surveys taken after the weekend were overwhelmingly positive, Roberts says.

A few members had initially expressed discomfort with the idea of a woman rabbi, Roberts says, but after the Shabbat weekend visit, the task force was confident Metz would be successful. “I have just been thrilled with the opportunity in front of us,” Roberts says.

Metz says her main plan as Anshei Israel’s new rabbi is to create relationships and get to know people. “In these unprecedented times, there are different challenges to that, but that just means I have to be a bit more creative … I am looking forward to getting to know people, and to meeting them where they are, and for all of us to work together on our respective Jewish journeys.”

In different times, she says, she would ask young families, kids, and teens what they like to do, then plan activities where they could spend time at venues such as a trampoline park.

Now that she must work via Zoom, she plans to hold meetings with different groups, “certainly small groups, because Zoom is hard,” where people can play games such as trivia or “Minute to Win It,” which poses fun challenges with everyday household items. “You take a spatula, and how many times can you flip over a paper cup in a minute, and whoever gets the most wins — those kinds of things,” she explains. ”It’s USY, youth group kind of stuff, where we can talk, and get to know each other, and we’re laughing and having fun.”

Chorny is looking forward to the partnership with Metz.

“She has a wonderfully engaging energy,” says Chorny, who appreciates the rabbi’s focus on building relationships with congregants of all ages.

“Along with the wonderful legacy of all of the rabbis we’ve had,” Chorny says, “I have confidence that she’ll also maintain our strong connection to Conservative Judaism with her own depth of knowledge and unique ideas.”

Metz recalls a moment during her Shabbat weekend at Anshei Israel. “There is a certain feeling when something is just right, and especially during the Shabbat morning service that I was leading with Nichole, I had a moment as I was praying the Amidah and looking at the beautiful curtain of the ark that has the mountains on it. I just felt my heart swell with hope. I just truly was enjoying being with the community and leading services for the community, and so many pieces of it just felt so right.”

Metz grew up in North Haven, Connecticut, and graduated from Brandeis University with degrees in American studies and Near East and Judaic studies. She was ordained by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, where she also received master’s degrees in Jewish education and rabbinic studies. Most recently she served as rabbi of Congregation Beth Mordecai in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.

She and her husband, Lev, have three children, Doron, 8; Eitan, 4; and Dina, 2.

“It’s fun any time you have a new young family coming to the congregation, and then to have one of them be your rabbi is even more exciting,” says Roberts.

Metz plans to collaborate with other synagogues in Tucson, as well as to be involved in interfaith work.  As part of a rabbinical school fellowship, “I went to Germany and Poland and to the camps, and was among Christian, Muslim, and Jewish clergy,” she recalls. She was part of an interfaith clergy association in New Jersey that planned interfaith Thanksgiving services, celebrated other joyous events together, and supported each other in times of need.

On a more personal level, along with hiking and biking, Metz enjoys crafts including crocheting and soap-making, cooking, and baking challah every week for Shabbat.

Metz says she and Lev made sure their new Tucson home was no more than a 15-minute drive from both Anshei Israel and Tucson Hebrew Academy, where Lev will teach Hebrew and Doron will be a student.

She is eager to settle in Tucson. Growing up, from the time she was a toddler until she went to college, she lived in the same house. Her young family has moved around a bit, “and we do deeply want to put down roots,” she says.

She means that both metaphorically and literally. Her family has an etrog (citron) tree they have kept in a pot so they could bring it inside when the New Jersey winters got too cold.

“We’re so excited to plant it in our yard … for our roots to grow in this soil,” Metz says.Phylli